Tsars, Maggots and Revolutionaries

Red Mutiny is depressing. When the subtitle of a book includes the words "Fateful Days" I guess you know what you're in for from the start. My dim memories of my Russian History classes were enough for me to know that the Russian Revolution a) started but fizzled in 1905 and b) the mutiny on the Potemkin didn't end in glory for anyone. Not that I could remember exactly how it ended.

It ended like most things ended in Nicholas II's Russia, in a pathetic fiasco that would have been laughable had the body count been zero.

The sailors on the Potemkin have a lousy lot. They're pretty much kidnapped from their homes for 25 years with little hope of ever seeing their families again. Then they're treated pretty much like slaves (serfs have it better) by their officer. And that's in peace time. During the Russo-Japanese war things get much worse. Red Mutiny offers a few terse paragraphs on the living conditions on ships in the Russian Baltic Fleet as it sails to relieve Port Arthur. Because the ships can't stop at any ports along the way (due to neutrality agreements) it has to fill every available space on the ship with coal to fuel the boilers. Black, dusty coal is in the halls, on the decks, in the kitchens, everywhere; literally driving some sailors insane.

After the Baltic Fleet is defeated, morale in the Russian Navy goes even lower. Committed revolutionaries among the sailors like Afanasy Matushenko see this as an opportunity to convince the sailors to fight back. It's not the pamphlets or the secret meetings that inspire the sailors though, it's the maggoty meat. For reasons not fully explained but seemed to point at bribery, maggot-ridden meat is brought on board to make borscht for the sailors. They refuse to eat the borscht. In response, the captain threatens to execute anyone who won't eat the borscht.

It's hard not to root for the mutineers in a situation like this, even if they do get a little out of hand and murder half the officers.

The hero of the book, and he is definitely presented as the hero, is Matushenko. He comes across as an angry, embittered idealist. You can't blame him for being angry or embittered. When he chooses not to sacrifice the lives of every sailor left on the Potemkin, despite the pleas of other revolutionaries, you know that even the revolution has let Matushenko down.

Neal Bascomb is one of the latest crop of non-fiction writers aiming to give us readable, novel-like accounts of historic events. He does a serviceable job here, telling the story and providing the necessary background without sounding like a textbook. He even manages to convey a sense of suspense on occasion: maybe things will turn out for our heroic, mutinous sailors after all! They don't, of course and Bascomb does have the task of making murderers (justified or not) into heroes. He may embrace that last task a little too enthusiastically. The last chapter finds Bascomb pointing out that the Potemkin sailors couldn't have known that communism would lead to the horrors of the Russian Revolution and Stalin. He leaves unsaid that sailors of the Potemkin, like other working-class Russian revolutionaries, fought one tyranny only to have it replaced by another.

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